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Treasures known and unknown in the British Library

Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

Passio of St Margaret


BL MS Egerton 877

Egerton 877, f. 6

Egerton 877, f. 6




My first unknown is an account of the martyrdom (Passio) of St Margaret, BL Egerton 877.1 It is a book of small format, about the size of a paperback novel, but only sixteen folios long (more of a short story in fact). The first twelve folios contain the Margaret Passio, with eighteen miniatures in spaces left by the scribe in the text, and this is followed by the penitential psalms, on the last four folios, without illustration. The manuscript is a north Italian product of the third quarter of the 14th century and textually is a more or less loose paraphrase of the standard latin Passio.

Egerton 877, f. 7

Egerton 877, f. 7



It was catalogued with remarkable brevity by Sir Frederick Madden: ‘Passion of St Margaret, parchment codex, decorated with images, 14th century, octavo.’2 (Passio S. Margaretae. Codex membranaceus, picturis exornatus, sec. XIV. Octavo.) I include this as a reminder that the project workers on the digital Catalogue are not alone in having had to work very fast. In this case Madden can hardly have spent more time on his catalogue entry than it took him to write the sentence of description. He did not even count the folios or mention a country of origin.

The only other mention of Egerton 877 I have found in print is in a discussion of illustrated lives of St Margaret by Alison Stones, who reproduced four of its miniatures, and referred to the manuscript briefly.3 (So this is an example of a ‘little-known’ rather than a known or strictly unknown manuscript.) Alison Stones presumably discovered Egerton 877 by using the Class Catalogue in the Students Room, that indispensable multi-volume handwritten subject guide to manuscripts in the British Museum/British Library. The image you see is St Margaret bursting unharmed from the back of a dragon, the standard and frequently repeated medieval image of the saint.


Margaret’s Escape from the Dragon

Egerton 877, f. 6v

Egerton 877, f. 6v


The narrative of Margaret’s escape from the dragon is on the facing (left) page in Egerton 877. The text reads:

Sancta Margareta sic orante et dicente, draco apperuit os suum super caput beate Margarite et lingua eius pertingens usque ad calcaneum beate Margarete et deglutivit eam. Sed facto signo crucis draco ille terribilis permedium est divisus et ipsa exivit de utero eius illesa sine dolore aliquo.

‘St Margaret praying and chanting in this manner, the dragon opened its mouth above the saint’s head and stretching out its tongue as far as St Margaret’s heel it swallowed her. But once the sign of the cross had been made that fearful dragon split open in the middle and she came forth (exivit) from its womb unharmed and without any pain.’ Those of you reading the Latin text will have noted the word ‘illesa’ in the last line. This is an Italian word, although it is also found in medieval Latin. ‘Illesa’ means unharmed; and of course ‘dolore’ is not only the ablative of Latin ‘dolor’ ‘pain’ it is the uninflected Italian word for pain. There are other Italianisms in vocabulary here, such as the use of ‘calcaneum’ ‘heel’ an unusual latin word, more familiar in the form of the Italian ‘calcagno’. But it is the phrase ‘unharmed and without any pain’ which will be important in what follows.


Egerton 877, f. 11v

Egerton 877, f. 11v



The narrative of Margaret’s passion ends on fol. 11v: ‘And demons came and were tormented, screaming and shouting and crying out and grieving because they saw the soul of blessed Margaret carried to heaven by angels of the lord, and they remained thwarted. And all the infirm of the city came to the relics of blessed Margaret to be healed, and all received health of body and mind, and they believed in God the creator of heaven and earth and Jesus Christ his son. And so blessed Margaret completed her struggle in peace, on the last day of the month of July. Let all those who have ears hear, fear God and adore his son Jesus Christ, who with the father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever, amen.’ The accompanying image shows three of the ‘infirm’ coming to the saint’s tomb for healing.

St Margaret and Childbirth

Now there is one strange thing about this verbal and visual account. Because Margaret emerged from the dragon’s womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’ she came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. 4 Indeed, the strap round the tomb in the miniature is a visual reference to the relic of the saint’s girdle, of which there were by the 14th century several competing examples (four in France, for example); the girdle or a suitably authenticated replica could be used as a birthing aid. We also know from a range of sources that women in childbirth might have the Passion of St Margaret read to them to ease their delivery. On occasions the text of the life might even be laid on their womb. Some of the texts of her Passio state this unambiguously: for example in the French version ‘Après la Sainte Passion’, as found in the Sobieski Hours at Windsor Castle (and about a hundred other manuscripts), we read ‘whatever woman is in childbirth if a sign shall be made over her with the book in which is my life, and she shall have looked at it, and the book shall be placed upon her, God will deliver her without peril…’. In the Golden Legend, Margaret prays ‘that any woman who invokes her aid when faced with a difficult labour will give birth to a healthy child’. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the Sobieski Hours we see a woman, probably but not necessarily a Margaret, kneeling in prayer before a book and an altar on which is an image of St Margaret bursting from the dragon, the whole in front of a large bed flanked by courtly ladies. Probably the woman is not praying to conceive a child, as has been argued, but for a safe delivery.

Yet the text of the Passio in Egerton 877 makes no mention of childbirth, nor do those who are said to visit the shrine include mothers with infants, although the figure standing at the right appears to be a woman.


‘Infant Come Forth!’

Egerton 877, f. 12

Egerton 877, f. 12


Facing the end of Margaret’s text, however, is a page with a text and image unique among surviving Margaret manuscripts. We see a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain. She has clearly just given birth to the swaddled infant held by a midwife. A second woman is in attendance, but the paint surface has been so smudged by kissing that it is hard to know what she was holding. Most of the text above is a touching invocation, beginning ‘Exi infans, Christus te vocat.’ ‘Come forth infant, Christ summons you in the name of the Son. Come forth infant, Christ guides you in the name of the Holy Spirit. Come forth infant, Christ guides you and invites you to baptism, [he] who suffered for you and from his side produced the water of baptism, and made baptism red by his blood. Elizabeth bore John, Anna bore Mary, the Virgin Mary bore Christ the saviour of the world, who will free you [name] from birth and your pains, Amen. If you are male or female, living or dead, come forth, for Christ summons you, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. The Father is alpha and omega, the Son is life, the Holy Spirit is medicine. Thanks be to God.’

The Egerton manuscript, therefore, is undoubtedly an example of the kind of Margaret libellus that was used as a birthing aid, despite the fact that the version of the Passio it includes makes no mention of such use. Furthermore, this particular libellus was supplied with a supplementary text, to be spoken by a doctor or priest, (in the absence of a midwife literate in Latin), especially if the birth were going badly. In terms of language we should note that the editor of an Italian verse version of the Passio described the number of Italian prose manuscripts as ‘almost infinite’. 5 In terms of method, what is important is to focus on all the different elements that make this Margaret manuscript unlike all others, not the lowest common denominators of their similarity.

How many times was this page devotedly kissed by women in fervent hope that their childbirth might leave them ‘unharmed and without any pain’? And if the worst happened and their child was stillborn how many women prayed in anguish, with the help of this little book, that their labour might still end safely? I leave you with these unknowns.



Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

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